Fallen officers memorialized

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A private unveiling was conducted Sunday for two plaques and a president's letter to create a constant reminder that police officers face unknown and recurring dangers as they protect and serve their fellow citizens.

The plaques are dedicated to Lewisburg Police Officer Billy Blackwell and City Police Detective Eugene Leverette, who died on the job under different circumstances, but both are clearly understood as in the line of duty when their stories are known.

"We'll have new officers come in and they will learn from our stories," Detective Sgt. Jimmy Oliver said after the ceremony and reception in the City Courtroom and Police Department Lobby where Mayor Bob Phillips said, "We ask so much of our police."

Police respond to emergency calls that are sometime false alarms, and they make regular patrols that are sometimes boring, and the mayor added, "In the end, we ask them to put their lives on the line."

Blackwell was shot down by a man hiding in the shadows as he distracted the policeman responding to what appeared to be a domestic call. It was on Feb. 1, 1975, exactly 34 years before the ceremony attended by more than four dozen friends, relatives, police and other officials.

Leverette died of a heart attack at the coroner's office where he called Dr. Joseph VonAlmen by his nickname, Quincy, because of a popular TV show.

"He started as a dispatcher and began to take courses on his own," Melony Spence said of her uncle, who died Nov 25, 1978. "He decided he wanted to be a detective and did."

Leverette had polio as a child and wore a brace and a shoe with a thick sole.

"His effort to walk was like ours to run," Spence said.

"He worked every case as if it was personal," she said of "one of the best uncles you could ever have."

Lewisburg Police were investigating a murder case that winter some three decades ago, and, for a detective, it was an around-the-clock responsibility that Leverette felt, so it wasn't unexpected that he was at Quincy's office that day while following up on a suicide.

"He told the coroner that he felt like he would faint -- and he had a massive heart attack," Spence said, noting her uncle's ever-lasting influence.

Doug Leverette was 15 when his father died. He is now a paramedic in Murfreesboro who started working in Lewisburg as an emergency medical technician nearly 20 years ago.

"He always wanted to help," Leverette said of his father. "It kind of rubbed off."
Mitzi Staszak was 10 when her father, Leverette, died. She now lives in Lewisburg and works at the hospital as a respiratory therapist after serving a hitch in the Navy.

"The measure of a community is how it honors its heroes," Police Chief Chuck Forbis said.

Blackwell's widow, Nancy Johnson, received a letter from then-President Gerald Ford, who told her, "In giving his life in the line of duty, Office Billy Wayne Blackwell will be mourned by all people whom he pledged to protect.

"He has our lasting admiration for his devotion to the cause of law enforcement and well-being of our society," Ford wrote to Johnson, who's since had to move on with her life for her family after asking herself in those dark winter days: How would she pay bills and how would she raise her children?

Still, the officer had taken care of things.

"Billy had the sense to have insurance," she said. "He had the cars taken care of."

Of Blackwell and Leverette, Chief Forbis said, "The highest honor will be to keep on remembering them," and so the Police Department lobby is where there's a permanent reminder.

"It never seems to be enough for the sacrifices they make," Forbis said, crediting Councilman Robin Minor and City Manager Eddie Fuller for their support in making the memorial become a reality.
Blackwell's brother, retired Sheriff's Capt. Phil Blackwell said, "Best thing that ever happened was that the officers be recognized; the chief and the city council did a good job.

"People are glad to see the police when they call them for help," the retired captain said. "After that they forget about you. People ought to say 'well done.'"

It "seems like yesterday" when his brother died, he said.

"I was just getting in my patrol car at my house when I heard there was an officer down," he said. "I didn't even think about my brother.

Sgt. Billy Walker asked on the police radio if it was one of his men and Blackwell heard the name Blackwell.

"I wrecked my car right then," he said.

He was taken to the scene of the shooting by another driver, who saw the crash.

Lewisburg Police Board Chairwoman Lina Horner said the plaques, framed letter from President Ford and the reception were "Timely, nice, well done."

Blackwell was "good at what he did," she said. "It's been hard on his children, but they've done well."